Animated Characters You Didn’t Know Were Inspired by Real People

Does art imitate real life? Or does real life imitate art?

This is a polarizing topic because there’s no definite answer.

Animated films, however, seem to incline toward the former approach. Some famous animated characters were inspired by the personality traits, appearances, and antics of real people.

The best example of this is Hulk.

You might not know this, but Jack Kirby, the creator of the superhero said in an interview that he once saw a woman lift a car to save her baby who was caught under its running board.

That woman influenced his creation of the Green Goliath.

Sure, Hulk wasn’t originally developed as an animated character, but he was hand-drawn, which technically makes both the same.

Anyway, coming back to the topic, like Hulk, a plethora of characters are said to have been modeled after human beings.

Let’s have a look at them:

1. Popeye from Popeye the Sailor Man

Gif Courtesy: GIPHY

Everyone’s favorite spinach-munching, gruff but kind-hearted sailor, Popeye, has been inspired from Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegel. A part-time bartender, Rocky was a tall and strong man who lived in Chester, Illinois.

Rocky was always up for a fight and had no teeth, two similar traits the cartoon character displayed. The tough as nails guy was also mostly seen with a pipe in his mouth.

Despite the frosty exterior, Rocky was known for being friendly and kind to children. In a sad turn of affairs, he never married and died childless.

Rocky is buried in his hometown and his grave reads, ‘Inspiration for Popeye the Sailor Man.’

2. Ursula from The Little Mermaid

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To create the iconic villain, Ursula of The Little Mermaid, Disney sought inspiration from a legendary drag queen, Divine. Both had the same fabulous persona and body type and wore over-the-top eye makeup.

The film’s producer, Howard Ashman, went through multiple character iterations during the film’s production. Since he personally knew Divine and was friends with him, Ashman finally decided on a design that made Ursula look strikingly similar to Divine.

Divine had breathed his last by the time The Little Mermaid hit theaters in 1989. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to see the flamboyant antagonist modeled after him.

3. The Vultures from The Jungle Book

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If you saw The Jungle Book during your childhood, you must’ve thought that, strangely, the Vultures looked familiar – and human. Well, that’s because they were designed to resemble The Beatles, the English rock band.

And the story doesn’t end there.

The creators of the movie wanted The Beatles to voice the four Vultures; John Lennon, the guitarist who led the pack, declined the offer.

That didn’t stop the studio from modeling the Vultures after the super-successful musicians, though.

Fun Fact: While making the live-action of The Jungle Book in 2016, Jon Favreau, the director, tried to get the surviving BeatlesPaul McCartney and Ringo Starr – to voice the Vultures. They said no (again).

4. Edna Mode from The Incredibles

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“No capes!”

This Edna Mode quote is permanently etched into our hearts and minds. And after looking at the person who inspired her, it’s no wonder where her uncompromising fashion sense stems from.

Although the movie’s director, Brad Bird, denies having been influenced by Edith Head, an academy-award-winning costume designer, Edna’s appearance suggest otherwise.

Edna and Head have a round face, rock a bob cut, and wear large glasses.

In addition to Edith, Edna is reportedly based on the following fashion icons:

  • Rei Kawakubo (founder of Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons)
  • Eiko Ishioka (Japanese art director)
  • Chitose Abe (creative director of Sacai, a Japanese luxury brand)

5. Bugs Bunny from Looney Tunes

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Prepare to have your mind blown: as opposed to the common and popular belief, rabbits eat carrots only when they have no other food.

“Wait a minute. Then what about Bugs Bunny? Isn’t he a rabbit and munches on carrot in just about every scene?”

Yes, that’s true.

Bugs Bunny eats carrot not because rabbits do, but because Clarke Gable, a famous Hollywood actor, did in It Happened One Night.

In the film, the actor is seen chomping on a carrot and talking with his mouth full. Even Bugs Bunny’s catchphrase, “What’s Up, Doc?” was reportedly inspired from Clarke, as in the same movie, he’s referred to as Doc.

6. Betty Boop from Dizzy Dishes

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There’s a mystery surrounding who inspired Betty Boop, a glamorous animated character. Some say it was a black Harlem singer Baby Esther, while others claim it was a caricature of Helen Kane, an American singer.

Interestingly enough, Kane rose to fame because she imitated Esther. Kane, however, was not a fan of getting the animation treatment.

Upon learning about Betty Boop, Kane sued Paramount Pictures as well as the animator Max Fleischer for exploiting her persona. In a surprising turn of events, the judge ruled that Kane had copied Esther’s singing style, dismissing the case.

7. Shrek from the Shrek Franchise

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The lovable ogre, Shrek, was allegedly inspired from a professional wrestler, Maurice Tillet. We say ‘allegedly’ because DreamWorks Animation, the studio that created Shrek, never acknowledged this.

But one look at Shrek and Tillet, and you’ll find it hard to ignore the similarities. The most prominent one was that Shrek and Tillet had large hands, feet, and face.

Tillet was diagnosed with acromegaly, a hormonal disorder causing a person’s hands, feet, and face to grow abnormally large. The majority of people had forgotten about him in the early 2000s, considering Tillet had peaked his wrestling career in 1940s and died in 1954.

But with the release of Shrek in 2001, Tillet’s popularity rose and will live forever.

Concluding Thoughts

When you see an animated character on your TV screen, you don’t think much about how it came into existence. But a deeper analysis reveals things you couldn’t have imagined, as this article proved.

Most people who inspired animated characters died before even knowing it, which makes us feel bittersweet. Though they may have passed away, their legacy won’t.